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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

WIU Faculty React to Audio of BoT's Illegal Discussions

Rich Egger
A stock photo of Christopher Pynes speaking to the WIU Board of Trustees

The latest audio recordings of illegal discussions held by Western Illinois University's administration and Board of Trustees garned significant conversation during the most recent Faculty Senate meeting.
The illegal discussions were held on June 1, 2018 and June 7, 2018. The recordings were released following a request for review by the local chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois, which represents faculty and staff on campus.  

According to the BoT agenda, the closed session meetings were called to discuss personnel issues. But, conversation instead focused on possible budget cuts, layoffs, elimination of academic programs, and outsourcing of college services -- all of which are topics that the Illinois Open Meetings Act requires be discussed in public.

Read More: More Open Meetings Act Violations by WIU Board & Administration

The audio recordings and OMA violations dominated much of the discussion at the Faculty Senate’s first meeting in March. Several faculty members expressed concern over the apparent lack of shared governance at the university given the types of issues being discussed privately and the way in which the conversation was presented.

I was really appalled in listening to the audio tapes at the amount of laughter and the unprofessionalism by our president, former interim provost, and Board of Trustees,” said Professor Susan Czechowski. “Laughter about positions going away.”

The illegal discussions included the members of the BoT, Western's President Jack Thomas, his chief of staff Paul Schlagg, then-Interim Provost Kathy Neumann, Vice President for Quad Cities and Planning Joe Rives, and several others.

Professor Christopher Pynes, the chair of the Faculty Senate, told Tri States Public Radio after the meeting that the illegal conversations underscore a larger problem at Western. [listen to the entire intview by clicking play on the audio link.]

“Not being able to have these difficult discussions publicly so that everybody is aware of where we are is inappropriate and it’s a lack of a leadership and it’s one of the reasons in my view that we are struggling,” Pynes said.

Pynes, who said he had listened to the three-plus hours of illegal discussions twice already, criticized the different messaging university leaders have put out publicly versus the tone of conversations happening privately. 

"They say things publicly like, 'We are going to be stronger after these cuts' or 'We are stronger because of all this.' That narrative is a false narrative and made everybody think we are okay, when behind closed doors they're in panic mode trying to figure out how to solve major budget problems and shortfalls," Pynes said. "If you're not open with the public about that, then you're not going to get those problems solved.

“If you listen to just the first seven minutes of the first, June 1st tape, it’s quite explosive. They say they have plans to layoff 150 faculty, they continue to insist on a 17 to 1 student-faculty ratio.”

Those deeps cuts have not yet materialized. At the end of last June, two dozen faculty received layoff notices. Another 29 faculty  layoffs were announced on March 1 as part of campus wide layoffsof 132 employees.

"So the question is, when will additional layoffs happen? You heard today from Associate Provost Russ Morgan that there are no more layoffs planned, but that’s the language they use everytime. They say we don’t have a current plan. It’s the lack of plan that is one of the biggest problems that we have had at Western for the last decade," Pynes said.

Pynes said he would like to see a clear budget for the university, a plan in place for recruitment and retention, and a new group of board members who take the responsibility seriously.  

“If we don’t have good stewards and we don't have people who have vision who understand their responsibilities to run the university, then we are going to continue to spiral out of control. If the state of Illinois wants to have a university at west central Illinois then we have to have a good Board of Trustees and appropriate funding."

Currently, there are six open seats on Western's eight-member board of trustees with the next BoT meeting scheduled for March 29. Appointments to the board are made by the governor.

This is not the first time WIU's BoT and top leaders have violated the Open Meetings Act. As we previously reported, the Illinois Attorney General ruled the BoT's closed session meeting on June 28, 2018 violated the OMA and required the university to release the minutes from the meeting and the audio recording.

The Faculty Senate responded to the violation by passing a resolution calling for the release of audio and minutes from other BoT closed session discussions. But, Pynes said the board never responded.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.